Forces of nature: biking with the wind

Posted on Tuesday, December 13th, 2022

Written by Amelia Frisbee

We have all experienced (or can at least imagine) a peaceful bike ride, one dense with scenic routes, perhaps a rocky terrain and some tricky uphill climbs. As beautiful as this scenery is in thought, in practice the reality of these destinations can pose some formidable challenges. Whether or not you are an experienced rider, just beginning on your cycling journey, or some standing in between, I am sure we are all familiar with the intimidating experience that is biking in the elements. Now, in some instances, the elements can be rather lovely and add in volumes to the enriching experience that this exercise can provide. Elements like excessive sunshine, a dense fog on a cool morning dissipating with a rising sun, or even something as simple as a cloudy day. However, in this case, I am referring to the arduous undertaking that is biking in particularly windy conditions.

It is not at all my endeavor to discourage you from biking in a strong breeze, it can in fact posit an alluring challenge! But why does the wind make cycling difficult? How does one go about overcoming it? That is exactly my aim: to expose you to and inform you of the intricacies that arise when one does choose to traverse this element on a bike, and more tangibly, how to overcome them.  I am very aware this is coming across as somewhat dramatic and despairing, but all I mean to be is clear on how complex and involved this seemingly unassuming issue can be. 

For terminology’s sake, in the realm of cycling this phenomenon is referred to as a “headwind,” “sidewind,” or a “tailwind” (depending on the direction, but the result remains that a strong enough wind on a moving bike leads to issues retaining balance). These physical problems arise when there is an imbalance in objects in motion, the objects in this scenario being the person on the bike and the strong pushing action of the wind. Of course, when the wind is pushing you from behind it makes even the toughest trail a breeze (get it?). However, the real problems can arise when the wind pushes either from the front, making even the easiest ride feel like you’re biking through quicksand. These problems also arise by disrupting the achieved balance by pushing on either side of the cyclist, requiring the cyclist to struggle to keep balance and remain upright. It is, again, the interaction of these two bodies pushing against each other unevenly that is causing the complicated nature of the system.

Not to worry, these issues are easily resolved with some logical reasoning and problem solving. If possible, the wind can be avoided entirely by choosing wooded trails, making the trees and forestry absorb the elements. You could also take more twisting and meandering routes; however, this won’t eliminate the presence of the wind, but it will split up how much of it you are dealing with at one time, making it less of an overwhelming undertaking. The imbalance in the pushing of the wind and the cyclist can also be remedied by bringing in your knees and leaning into the direction of whichever direction the wind is blowing. How does this restore balance to the system at all? The bigger you make yourself on the bike by sitting upright, or by pointing your knees outward, the more of yourself the wind has to push you with. Therefore, by making yourself more compact on the bike, the wind has less to grab you with, lessening the effect this element will have on your journey [1]. Another simple and effective solution that follows in the ‘aerodynamic’ footsteps is wearing tighter-fitting clothing. This, again, will reduce how much the wind can push you as it makes you a much smaller target [2]. These are the most pragmatic and realistic ways to avoid the imposition that the wind brings to a bike ride.

Figure: illustration of the different positions in which a cyclist can ride a bike, and how they can make themselves smaller on the bike frame [2].

There are certainly other options, like buying certain gadgets and expensive bikes that make minimal overall difference in practice. You can also bike in larger groups and take turns as the leader, who absorbs the most turbulent airflow. This particular solution is not unlike how penguins conserve heat and life by huddling and rotating in the frozen poles [3].

So, we have covered why, and perhaps more importantly, how wind affects an innocent cyclist on a blustery bike ride. There will be an combination of pushing between the cyclist and a strong wind which naturally transpires in the scenario of a strong gust from any direction. This pushing will be imbalanced, somewhat unpredictable, and sometimes even scary, but the rider is not doomed. There are simple solutions that address how push-able you are by the wind that are both pragmatic and easily implemented. Now that you know this, with any luck, you will no longer be too discouraged when you find yourself craving a bike ride on a windy day. 


Amelia Frisbee, an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, produced this article in the context of the 3rd-year course IPS3000 on Science Communication in the Fall 2022 semester (course instructor: Alex Gezerlis, TA: Carley Miki).

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